If you haven't seen Steven Spielberg's latest movie, "Lincoln," my advice is: 1) See it. 2) Arrange to have Ross Peterson sit next to you in the theater.
Peterson, who has been teaching U.S. history for more than 40 years, first at the University of Texas and then at Utah State University (now semiretired), is a Lincoln expert and fan. The shelves in his office include a bust of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg's 10-volume Lincoln biography and every other book written about the man. He once led a tour of the Land of Lincoln.
"I've always been intrigued by how America could produce such a guy with almost no background in leadership and thrust that upon him and have him rise to the occasion the way he did," Peterson says.
What did he think of the movie?
"In all honesty, I enjoyed it," he said. "I thought people would understand it better if they had know a lot of the history. They did an amazing job of casting people, creating sets and putting characters in the roles. I noticed that none of the men had washed hair, for instance. That would have been typical of the day. They were a pretty scruffy bunch, not as primped as Washington and Adams."
Whether or not you've seen the movie yet, Peterson's observations about the film, which follow, will enhance the experience.
Some people will be upset that the movie portrays Lincoln as perfectly willing to buy votes with political favors to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. "That was Lincoln to a T," Peterson says. "They paid what we would now call lobbyists to offer favors to get those votes." Lincoln believed the end justified the means. He even fudged the truth when necessary, such as saying the Southern peacekeepers were not in Washington or Virginia, which was only technically true — they were just outside those boundaries, waiting in a harbor.
If you question the accuracy of some of the dialogue or what went on behind closed doors, it is noteworthy that John Hay and John Nicolay — the president's private secretaries, both portrayed in the movie — took notes of everything. Peterson thought the film should have shown them recording the meetings.
There's a reason that William H. Seward — Lincoln's secretary of state, played by David Strathairn — disappears at the end of the film. The plot to kill Lincoln also included simultaneous, but failed, attempts on the life of Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson by John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators. Recovering from injuries suffered in an accident, Seward was at home, resting in bed when assassin Lewis Powell showed up to kill him. Powell's gun misfired, and he had to fight his way past Seward's children and guards to leap on the bed and stab Seward in the face and neck repeatedly. Thinking he had killed Seward, he fled and was later captured and executed. All five of the wounded, including Seward, survived. All this was probably too much of a tangent to portray in the movie.
At one point in the film, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant tells Lincoln, "Sir, you look 10 years older than you did a year ago." Peterson says, "That's accurate."
One of the early scenes shows soldiers, including a black man, recite sections of the Gettysburg Address to the president. Peterson strongly doubts that happened. "I've never read that," he says. Besides, he notes, "The Gettysburg Address wasn't appreciated much at the time. The other guy who spoke at Gettysburg spoke for two hours. Lincoln's speech was criticized by the press for being too short. It was later, in looking over the great things Lincoln did, that people talked about that speech."
There are two other scenes that Peterson says probably didn't happen — mixing black and white soldiers, and Lincoln riding past dead soldiers strewn on the battlefield at Petersburg. "They were very quick to bury those bodies because of disease," he says. "Even a day later, they would exchange bodies. That's why there were few counterattacks. Lincoln did go down there (to Petersburg), though. He always visited the hospitals. Almost daily sometimes. Then he would have nightmares about it."
Mary Todd Lincoln, the President's grief-stricken wife, was later committed to an institution by her son, Robert, who, by the way, is the only one of Lincoln's four children who survived to adulthood.
If you have not seen the movie, you probably should skip this paragraph: At the end of the movie, we see Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful Republican congressman, superbly played by Tommy Lee Jones, climb into bed with a black woman, actually, a quadroon or one-quarter black. This is true. Her name was Lydia Smith. As Peterson explains, "It was common knowledge — he had never hidden it. She was a widow and she was free. She had been married to a white man who had passed away. He adopted her children. He never married her — she was a common-law wife. She was in his will. It really bugged Mary Todd Lincoln. It's one of the many reasons why she disliked him."4 comments on this story
Lincoln is frequently shown interrupting intense meetings to tell a slow, seemingly irrelevant story, which were usually humorous and relevant. At one point, Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war, loses his temper and cries, "Not another story!" All true, says Peterson. "Stanton would go crazy when Lincoln would tell his stories. They'd be in the middle of a heavy discussion, and Lincoln would start telling a story. He was a prolific storyteller. Sometimes people would see the point, sometime they wouldn't." Stanton is also the one who says, from the side of Lincoln's deathbed, 'Now he belongs to the ages.' "
Looking back on the life of Lincoln, Peterson says, "Every once in a while, historians play the president-rating game and Lincoln is usually at the top with Washington and FDR. Crisis creates greatness. From 1820 to 1860 every Congress had a major debate about slavery. It was the great issue. He was able to solve it with 600,000 deaths. He also was able to save the union. That was something that was easier to fight for. To do that, ultimately, of course, it cost him his life. There is great similarity between him and FDR. They die at the hour of their triumph and added a touch of martyrdom, especially where Lincoln was assassinated.
"Lincoln took an oath to defend the United States. He never thought the way it was put together that secession was a possibility. And the other thing is he had moved from being just against slavery expansion to against slavery itself and wanting to make it a moral crusade. He came to that view early in the war. That was in the best interest of the country and he was willing to take people into battle to do it."